10,000 Hours

So I originally intended this video to be about the way I once organized my whole submission plan for literary magazines. I had this fancy pants spreadsheet characterizing my every submission move. The spreadsheet was color-coded. It had formulas. There were calculations. It was brilliant.

Or so I used to think. But a few minutes into making my latest video, I realized how much I have changed over the years. Partly this happened out of necessity. I was single back then. I didn’t have kids. I had the time and space to totally ritualize and fetishize the submission process while still having time to write and read and watch snooty foreign films and everything else.

But there’s more to it than that. I think my change has also come because I’ve grown as a writer. At least I’ve grown enough to see how much more I should have been focusing on the writing and not as much on selling myself as a writer. We writers (permit me to arrogantly lump you in with me…) are so compelled to obsess over the accolades we think we deserve before fully maturing our writing chops. And so this submission spreadsheet of mine looks a bit silly at this point. It’s not that I think writers shouldn’t worry about submitting their work. Of course that’s an essential part of the process and I constantly push other writers to submit their work more often. But I also think it is seductively easy to get hung up on this part of the process – to get hung up on why story X hasn’t been published or why magazine Y won’t publish any of my damn writing. (Amusing unrelated anecdote: I submitted so many bad stories to Zyzzyva that someone there asked me to please stop sending them stories…)

In the end, this video turned into a talk about the importance of writing. And about writing a lot. Without doing a lick of research (or even bothering to read the book), I swiped Malcolm Gladwell’s notion from Outliers that it takes 10,000 hours to master a particular craft. (Don’t quote me on this!) I just love the idea of that number because it is a damn big number. And I think it is roughly true. It takes a long time for most of us mortals to get good at writing.

Before you start to think I’m getting all preachy about it, I just want you to know that this is more of a reminder to myself to shut up and write than anything else. I’ve recently been getting a bit wrapped up in a lot of issues related to my upcoming novel. Even worse: in issues that I have little or no control over. And my writing shut down for a while. And so now I’m reminding myself to write more. Check it out:

What do you think about this idea? Do you buy the 10,000-hour rule? Do you ever get wrapped up in the submission and marketing part of things and forget about the writing?

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About Yuvi Zalkow

Yuvi Zalkow writes and worries in Portland, Oregon. His stories have been published in Glimmer Train, Narrative Magazine, Carve Magazine, and others. His first neurotic novel is now available. He is working on a second novel (about one Jew obsessed with napkins and another Jew in the Klan). He recently received an MFA from Antioch University, which makes him feel official.

Comments

  1. says

    Yuri, you know I LOVE your rants. To see that you have a niblet of sagacity for us engages my underworked smile muscles even before the curtain rises on your latest. Thanks for bringing we presumptive scriblers mental fun and frolic and, of course, a deep well of profound wisdom fed to us with some honey to make the lesson de jour go down. You de main man! Sedaris is sweating.

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  2. says

    When I was awake in the night, playing Florence Nightengale (I almost called her Florence Henderson, which would be a totally different kind of performance) to my two sick, feverish, needy, back rub-requesting children, I was wondering when we’d get another dose of you and your funniness. Thank you for appearing in my inbox. I needed that.

    As for 10,000 hours, I totally agree that it takes at least that. I was just talking to a guy who was bellyaching that he hadn’t gotten any agents interested in representing his novel. He had, after all, spend ONE WHOLE YEAR working on it. And no, he had “never really written much before.” And he had only queried about four agents. I kind of wanted to karate chop him, but instead, I told him that I have spent ten years on my current novel, and that there is no way I could have gotten my agent any sooner . . . that I needed that much practice. I could tell he felt a bit sorry for me. Which made me want to karate chop him harder.

    I simply don’t trust (and don’t especially like) anyone who gets published on less than 10,000 hours of practice . . . with the exception of prodigies and really nice people. Like if Mother Teresa or Betty White wrote a book after only two or three thousand hours of practice, I would say, “Right on, girl!” and totally mean it.

    Wow. I need a nap, and it’s only 6:57 Seattle time. Thanks, Yuvi!

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    • says

      Sarah! First of all, take care! Hope the kids feel better soon…

      And yes, I remember in my early days of writing where I arrogantly thought I was ready for the New Yorker… What a horrifying thought if those early stories actually somehow got published… I’m horrified enough when my 10,000-hour pieces get published! :)

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      • says

        Oh, I so feel your shame. I decided I was ready for the top tier of mags after only a year of writing. I want to write apology letters to all of the poor folks who had to reject me. I wonder if they gouged their eyes out . . . probably.

        It’s a gorgeous sunny day in Seattle; the kids are sucking on Popsicles on the back porch, all snuggled in their sleeping bags. I hope you are getting some sun down south too.

        Thanks again for your always-fab contributions.

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    • Robin Yaklin says

      *Karate chop* (imagining said insolent soul falling backwards onto bum) That was for saying, “Are you still working on that thing?”

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  3. Robin Miller says

    I love, love, love this post! I’m a beginning writer and all this keeping records for submission thing is driving me crazy. Everyone preaches submit, submit, find an agent or build a platform. That’s all very important don’t get me wrong, however, when you’re new it can be all very overwhelming. Your post has put it all into perspective.

    They say 10,000 steps a day shapes a healthy body so it only makes sense that 10,000 hours would shape a great writer!

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    • says

      Good luck with the writing, Robin! I do think it is important to submit one’s work (and some people don’t do it enough), but it’s just too easy to let that stuff take over. Especially early on when big growth steps in the writing is key…

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  4. says

    I’d been writing forever, mostly non-fiction, when my first story began winning awards in the 90s. One agent later, nothing. I continued to write. More submissions. Nothing. I continued to write. New agent. Nothing. Last year, I tried contests. Won with all of those various stories I’d accumulated over many, many more hours than 10K. Still nothing. I continue to write–in between editing others’ work.

    But, oh, I’m so grateful that those early efforts failed to land a contract. If they had, I’d now be mortified. I’m reworking the early 90s story now and find it wasn’t actually horrible. But I’ve learned so much in the intervening years, because I kept on writing. Not always submitting, but always writing. Always reading…and trying to read the best. Because being satisfied that we know much of anything will only keep us from learning and growing.

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    • says

      Great to hear from you, Normandie. Yes! One thing I didn’t talk about in the post but I think is so important is how valuable those early failures are for a writer…

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  5. says

    I love that you admit to not reading Outliers. I listened to it on audio book. But I found out that Outliers and Tipping point chapters had mixed on my mp3 player. Man, that was a long, but really great book. ;)

    I love that you’re back to focusing on the writing. After 2 years of running #Bookmarket Twitter chat, in the end, it always comes back to great writing, great stories bring readers.

    Great stories, created with create writing, draw great readers.

    That fits in a fortune cookie! ;)

    I’ve probably written all 10,000 hours. Mostly because I write straight up, old school serial fiction published as it’s written a chapter a week. I’m still trying to clear the way inside myself to hear and translate the story well. I will probably spend my life doing that.

    But then again, I don’t believe in the submission process. Mostly because I think the press to send money to shareholders is a perversion of the sacred relationship between author and reader. But that’s just me.

    Rock on.

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  6. Bernadette Phipps Lincke says

    I was a bit intimidated at a local writer’s meeting at how many writers were talking about their numerous followers online, and the powerhouse of their platforms. One woman even announced she was taking a speech class, in the event that her work might win a prize. However, as the long hour wore on, I began to discover that most of the platform savvy writers in the room–had no completed works to date, and the woman recommending speech class had only a vague outline for her memoir, and I don’t think it was down on paper.

    Thanks, for this very funny reminder that while the cart is important, we should concentrate on roping the horse first. :)

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    • says

      Good to hear from you, Bernadette. Your experience is definitely familiar to me. I went to a writing conference ten years ago where everyone was pitching their novels to agents. No one could believe that I didn’t have a brilliant pitch ready to go. I felt so stupid there. And then I realized many of the people pitching hadn’t even written past page 20 of a FIRST draft…

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    • says

      I have similar issues, feeling rather intimidated and like a tiny fish in a giant pond when it comes to my platform. Fortunately I have been writing – not as much as I should, most likely, but I certainly have been gathering a portfolio and slowly adding more and better stories under my belt. I even submit them sometimes, and even get published on occasion. But I can see why so many find the platform and the followers to be so important, and to be distracted from the actual writing by it – it provides instant gratification and feedback, whereas toiling away on countless unseen or unwanted works can get quite depressing after a while.

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  7. says

    I’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers”, and it confirmed my hardcore work ethic on becoming the most effective and compelling storyteller I can before I release anything to the public. That 10,000 hours concept is reflected in greats like Steve Jobs, Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, Stephen Spielberg, the Beatles and others whose work touches millions, and will continue to do so long after they’re gone. Whatever one thinks about them personally, their mastery of their gift is a separate issue that has shaped several generations of the world. They don’t just do what they do, they live what they do. That’s way more than working 10,000 hours. That’s pushing evolution.

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  8. says

    I can’t top Alex’s and Sarah’s comments. (And let’s be honest, with Sarah’s predilection for violence, that wouldn’t be wise.) I’m just here to give another thanks for the gentle-humored butt-kicking. Ow. ;)

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  9. says

    Yuvi, great post and I totally agree on the 10,000-hour theory. I wrote two doomed novels and countless bad short stories before I felt I knew what I was doing as a writer. You also make a good point about the marketing and non-writing related aspects of building your career and how these can become a giant time suck that takes you away from the writing. Thanks again. I always enjoy your posts.

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  10. says

    I do buy the rule, actually. I mean, the idea behind the rule. I haven’t done the research to know the actual number, but it seems large enough to work.

    “We writers (permit me to arrogantly lump you in with me…) are so compelled to obsess over the accolades we think we deserve before fully maturing our writing chops.”

    Lol it’s not arrogant; it’s accurate, at least in my case.

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  11. says

    Yuvi, another great video.

    The first novel I ever completed was started in December of 1991. How many hours I’ve written since then (I averaged 20-30 hours a week when I wasn’t fighting cancer/chemo fog) I couldn’t say, but it adds up to 5 or 6 completed novels, several more abandoned halfway through. In December of 2011 I received my first contract offer.

    Some days I’m still not sure I know what I’m doing, but focusing on the writing sounds like solid advice to me, no matter where you are in the journey.

    Outliers is worth the read, btw.

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    • says

      Congratulations on getting your first offer and for sticking with it for a bunch of years. I love this line: “Some days I’m still not sure I know what I’m doing, but focusing on the writing sounds like solid advice to me, no matter where you are in the journey.”

      Yes, one of these days, I will need to *actually* read Outliers… I hear good things.

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  12. Sally McDonald says

    I love the humor and self-deprecation in your article. I also agree with your principle and share your frustration. Many writers I know believe the first draft of their first novel will be the next Australian bestseller. Not coincidentally, these same writers never read novels!

    But hang on – I just calculated the 10,000 hour rule and discovered that is only 417 days – a little over a year (albeit with no sleep calculated in). That doesn’t seem near long enough to me!

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    • says

      Sally — I do think you hit on something by calculating how many days it would require if you were writing non-stop. Because I think a part of the true calculation should go beyond just “number of hours spent writing”. It may be more accurate to talk about “number of years existing as an active writer”. You know what I mean?

      Thanks for the feedback!

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  13. says

    Hey Yuvi,

    I felt like you were reading my mind, as these have been some of my own thoughts, when writing. lol Why didn’t that blankety-blank like my story? Did they not see the potential? Why say they like it, then turn around and reject it?

    I agree, as writers, we need to write, write, and not necessarily be right. lol Do the hard work, which writing is, and take the time to gain experience, as well.

    Thank you for your wonderful post and thoughts. :-)

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  14. says

    My day is always brightened by a Yuvi Zalkow video. I wish I had a witty, thoughtful comment, but I am tapped out this evening. (All that life stuff did me in today.)
    I do love the advice to just keep writing — to get off the imaginary stage with imaginary Oprah and write. Thanks for making my day, once again.

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  15. says

    This post is a terrific reminder to me that I need to stop worrying so much about what went before and more about what is ahead. Back to writing!
    Thanks

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